US Marijuana Party

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Inmate charged with killing cellmate could face death penalty, AZ

MESA, Ariz. -- A state prison inmate already serving a life term has been formally accused of killing his cellmate, a nonviolent drug offender who was placed with the convicted murderer only a few hours before he was stabbed and beaten to death.

Inmate Michael Gaston could face the death penalty if convicted of the charges, filed more than three months after the Sept. 7 death of 45-year-old William Harris in the state prison in Florence. Prosecutors have yet to decide if they'll seek the death penalty.

Gaston made his first appearance in Pinal County Superior Court on Dec. 21, but did not enter a plea, according to court records.

The incident raised questions about the state prison system's inmate classification system, which is designed to prevent non-violent prisoners from being housed with those known to be violent. The system became a hot topic nearly three years ago following a three-week standoff at Lewis Prison in Buckeye, one of the longest prisoner revolts in the nation's history.

Harris was serving a three-year sentence for drug charges. Gaston arrived at the prison in April after he was convicted of killing a friend in the desert near Wickenburg over a disputed car loan.

A legislative committee questioned Department of Corrections Director Dora Schriro about the incident last month, and Gov. Janet Napolitano asked her for a report on the incident that was due Monday at the latest.

Schriro defended the inmate classification system and told the committee it was not responsible for Harris' death.


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